Written by Jámon Y. Huevos
Mikael Hafstrom’s 1408 gets to take a seat of honor next to The Shining as the second of two truly great haunted hotel movies to spark from the mind of Stephen King. John Cusack plays Mike Enslin, the author of two books of haunted hotel reviews. Having separated from his wife after the untimely death of their daughter, Enslin would like nothing more than to believe in the afterlife; unfortunately, he’s never seen any proof. That all changes when he spends the night in room 1408 at New York City’s Dolphin Hotel.
John Cusack cannot receive enough accolades for his taut performance of the heart-broken Enslin. Eighty percent of the film is Cusack in a room by himself and he pulls it off in amazing style. It’s Cusack’s own genuine humanity that shines through so many of the characters he portrays, and Enslin comes off as witty, smart, funny, and sad in a rich and multi-dimensional performance. You just want to hang out with this guy; however, you do not want to hang out in room 1408.
Room 1408 is spectacularly haunted. The screenwriters and director refuse to cut the audience apart with cheap thrills. Even when they have something jump out of the shadows, you feel like those moments were earned because of the more subtle terrors filling the screen for most of the movie. The horror starts slow and then builds and builds. Every possibility is loaded into that room, from ghosts and gruesome murders to fire and ice. This is one roller coaster that is ninety percent slow movement up a long hill, ripe with tension and fear, and ten percent gut-wrenching drop. It’s all about timing and special effects, and the editors and artists work some great magic.
There is one sour note in 1408, and it is very sour. Samuel L. Jackson is an empty hole of acting nothingness in the center of this film. 1408 finally proves that unless Jackson is being shot at, he should stay home in bed. Virtually everybody else in the cast is able to hold their own against Cusack’s magnetism. Of special note are Mary McCormack as Enslin’s wife and Jasmine Jessica Anthony as Enslin’s daughter. Jackson, on the other hand, tries to act entirely with his eyebrows and a straight-edge speaking cadence. This makes his performance look like two caffeinated inch worms frolicking atop a single piano note. It’s an interesting visual, but there ain’t nothing there.
1408 does exactly what it sets out to do, send shivers down your spine with an intelligent story. I’m not sure it could have worked without John Cusack in the lead; he is the perfect everyman. That aside, 1408 is a smart psychological drama with some great bumps in the dark.